How Tinkov’s Grand Tour Challenge could prove costly for cycling

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The idea may be on hold for 2015, but Oleg Tinkov is determined to keep pushing the sport’s top riders to eventually accept his proposed Grand Tour Challenge. Under the plan, the Russian Tinkoff-Saxo team owner would put up one million euro to be shared amongst 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali, 2013 Tour winner and runner-up Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana plus the Vuelta a España and former Tour winner Alberto Contador.

However, although the idea has generated a certain amount of interest and excitement, there have also been concerns expressed. CyclingTips spoke to several people within cycling who outlined potential issues with the drive to encourage top riders to do all three Grand Tours in one season.

On a theoretical level alone, the idea has some benefits. Tinkov argues that the top races deserve the best riders, and says that this would ensure greater interest from the public and general media. There is also a romanticism in the idea of one rider trying to be the first in history to win all three races in one season.

Former pro Marco Pinotti agrees that on some levels, the idea has some appeal.

“Like every challenge, it is fascinating. You can compare it with winning the Grand Slam in tennis in one year. Only two men and three women have achieved it. That was in a time where that sport wasn’t as global as now and probably not as competitive. Yet keep in mind in tennis the time between the tournament is bigger and tournaments are two weeks long.”

Current rider Koen de Kort also sees an attraction. “In general, I think the thought is really good. For the normal audience, the people watching TV, for them the current system doesn’t really make any sense,” the Giant Shimano competitor said.

“There are so many races and there are all different riders racing in these races. There are not always the best riders in the biggest races. I do understand a little bit of that.”

Still, he has concerns. “This is not the time. I think the calendar has to change first before we will be able to achieve anything like that.

“At the moment, with all three Grand Tours being three weeks, it is just impossible. There is also so much in between that I think it will be physically impossible to be in good shape for all three of them.”

For him, it’s one thing to ride the Giro, Tour and Vuelta in one year, but quite another to do so at a high level day in, day out. “I am quite sure you can race all three of them,” he explained. “I have raced a couple of Grand Tours in a row as well. But I think you can’t actually go for GC in three Grand Tours. It is just physically impossible.”

Pinotti echoes this. “I think it is simply not possible with the current calendar with four weeks (even less, 27 days) between them,” he said.

“Especially if all of the main competitors in cycling are not obliged to start in all three Grand Tours. We have seen many cases in the past of riders doing the Giro and then the Tour and we know how it went.

“Even in the case all start, I think someone will prevail in one of them, then other one in another race. And it’s not only a physical thing; it’s also mental. You’d need to have a team with the strength to support the leader for all the three Grand Tours. I don’t think any of the GC riders will think about it seriously.”

TDFR 2014 - stage -14

When is a Grand Tour not a Grand Tour?

Brian Smith previously worked with the Cervélo Test Team and is making a return to Pro Continental cycling in with MTN Qhubeka. He is acting as interim general manager and is helping build the team towards 2015.

Smith spoke at length to CyclingTips about the need to restructure the calendar, saying that it was important to streamline the UCI WorldTour and to try to ensure the top riders took part in more of those races.

He considers Tinkov’s idea as a viable one if the riders agree to it perhaps once every four years. Otherwise, thought, he has big concerns.

“It is far too much to take on. That is why I said every four years maybe have a goal like that,” he told CyclingTips. “It would probably be better for that year that the Grand Tours are cut down to two weeks, but that is never going to happen. And a Grand Tour is a Grand Tour because of the third week.”

The latter point is echoed by De Kort. “I do really like the setup of the Grand Tours being three weeks, and it is quite possible to do a three week Grand Tour. It is hard, but physically it is quite possible,” he said.

“But if you want to get to the stage where you want to have more of the best riders doing more of the bigger races, then something is going to have to change in the calendar. I suppose then shortening the Grand Tours is an option that could actually work well in that regard.”

However, like Smith, he recognises that the Grand Tours are precisely that because of their length. He accepts that things would be different if those races were shorter. “They are getting pretty dangerously close to a ten day Tour of Switzerland then, aren’t they?” he said.

Smith believes it’s possible to do all three of the races, but underlines that there is a difference between participation and overall contention. “Adam Hansen rides all these Grand Tours, but he is not competing every day to stay in front and to lose minimum time,” he pointed out.

“The big GC riders are fit from the start of the season. If you had to be fit for the Giro, fit for the Tour and fit for the Vuelta, then I don’t think people are capable of that.

“Bradley Wiggins said before that he wanted to do the Giro/Tour double and he thought it was physically possible. I had my doubts about it. I still do. These guys are fit…it’s not like they start the Tour slightly underweight. The GC guys are so thin, they are very prone to illnesses. And also to injuries if they crash. I don’t think they are capable of racing at such a high level for all three Grand Tours.”

He also raises an interesting point: the effects the big guns being in those three races rather than in other events. At this point in time, many of them compete in the Criterium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse, as well as other race such as Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico. If their season is instead geared around being in top form for the Giro, Tour and Vuelta, that will in turn have an effect elsewhere.

“If the Grand Tour riders are riding all three Grand Tours, what does it do to all the other races where they will never make an appearance?” asks Smith.

It’s a point that bears thinking about.

History points to difficulty of task:

Looking back at the past, it’s clear that attempting to win the Giro and Tour is much more difficult than targeting the Tour alone. History proves this to be the case: only seven riders have achieved the feat.

Fausto Coppi did it in 1949 and again in 1952. Jacques Anquetil pulled it off in 1964, while Eddy Merckx (1970, 1972 and 1974), Bernard Hinault (1982 and 1985) and Miguel Indurain (1992 and 1993) also won both.

More recently, Stephen Roche (1987) and Marco Pantani (1998) topped the podium in both races, but the near-twenty year gap since the latter’s achievement underlines how difficult it is in the modern era.
Cor Vos Archives
It is generally accepted that Pantani was using EPO and other substances when he did the double; in the era of the biological passport, at a time when the sport is perceived to be cleaner, is this still possible?

What we know is that riders who have attempted to be at their best in both races in recent years have struggled to do so, as evidenced by Contador’s first and fifth in the 2011 Giro and Tour respectively.

The conclusion is that if you target the first two Grand Tours, you are less likely to win the Tour. And even if all four big names agree to Tinkov’s proposal and commit, that accumulated fatigue simply makes it much easier for a fifth rider to target the Tour alone and snatch victory due to his greater reserves.

Accepting that there is a gamble to taking on the double – let alone the triple – is the financial incentive enough? Tinkov is offering a million euro between four riders. However, anti-doping expert Robin Parisotto points out that there would be more than four riders involved in the project.

“It would require a whole team effort to get the same rider over the line in the three races,” he said. “Splitting a quarter million euro among a team (assuming support riders would want a cut also) over three Grand Tours doesn’t really amount to much in the end in any case.”

Aside from the issue of splitting up the cash between team-mates, any discussion of the financial benefits of such a million euro bounty must also consider two things: what the top riders already get, and what more they could potentially earn as winner of the Tour de France.

Nibali, Froome, Contador and Quintana are all on multi-million euro contracts; as Parisotto states, earning an extra 250,000 euro each – or, even one million, if all four agreed on a winner-takes-all agreement – would quickly diminish once the amount is shared out amongst team-mates. As a proportion of their overall salary, the dividend is relatively modest.

Now consider that amount versus the combined value of 450,000 euro from ASO for first place in the Tour plus the increase to a rider’s worth if he wins the sport’s biggest event. Win the Tour, and your contract value will soar. Struggle to contend and it won’t.

In that light, does it make sense to diminish your chances of Tour victory by doing the Giro first? To put it simply: no. The numbers don’t add up.

A new Pandora’s box?

There are other numbers too which any consideration of this plan must include, and these are perhaps the most important of all. Forget cash incentives, and put aside potential gains in media coverage. All this means nothing if the sport’s credibility is at stake.

Parisotto is particularly clear about the danger of such an idea. The Australian is part of the UCI’s biological passport panel and while he spoke to CyclingTips in a personal capacity rather than in relation to this role, his experience in the area is considerable.

He warns that an attempt by the big GC riders to hold form across three Grand Tours could have unsavoury consequences. In fact, he warns it could cause serious damage to a sport which has been battling in recent years to clean itself up.

“Surely Tinkov would expect more from them [the top riders] than just going through the motions,” he said, commenting on the proposal. “Is he doing out of the goodness of his heart? What’s his game?

“If it’s about winning the Grand Tours, the idea itself is ridiculous in the extreme. To think that a rider could pull something off that is unprecedented in the history of the sport (and physiologically impossible) without some major ‘intervention’ is unthinkable.”

Parisotto doesn’t mince his words whatsoever; for him, it’s clear that agreeing to ride all three races for GC is incompatible with clean cycling.

“If anyone was moronic enough to take up the challenge they would need more than ‘bread and water’ to get through each tour. The added temptation could push them into, or further deeper, into drug-fuelled territory. Enough to perhaps result in fatal consequences. When EPO doping was totally out of control no-one came close to performing such a feat. With the passport firmly in place these days any attempt to dominate even one tour race through illicit means, let alone all three Grand Tours, is impossible.

“In terms of blood doping there is insufficient wiggle room to provide someone with the physiological benefit/advantage to dominate over another cyclist without it being apparent in their passport. I truly don’t believe that there is anything out there that would be a ‘game changer’ which is undetectable, so for me it would be the tried and tested drugs which would be more likely to be abused. That would be very dangerous.”

He also believes it could have a knock on effect to other riders. “The top cyclists are arguably well remunerated already. One could feel for those in the peloton who are not quite there but have to do the hard yards as well. Such an inducement could tempt other top riders to dope and risk being caught and disqualified. The word ‘entrapment’ comes to mind.”

Unsurprisingly, Parisotto is dismissive of the Grand Tour Challenge. “This is an irresponsible act in my view, let alone impossible. You’d wonder whether the sports ruling body – as well as the respective team owners – will have something to say about this as well. Importantly, also, who would then have duty of care here?

“If it was up to me I’d be saying to Oleg Tinkov, ‘on your bike..!’

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